By Larry Reece
Sunday August 5th, 2000 was the start of the 12th annual Mammoth Cave Restoration Field camp. The first official event was supper on Sunday evening followed by the Camp Director, Norm Rogers, providing a welcome and outline of the project schedule for the coming week. Next John Fry, the NPS project administrator, gave us a welcome from the park service and covered the safety rules we were to observe during the project. Finally John Vargo explained the history and use of the Vargo tools used to bridge pilings. We had a record attendance with 43 people on hand for the start of this years' camp.
The major objective of this year's camp is a continuation of work started two years ago and is a part of the Mammoth Cave Historic Entrance Ecotone project. The removal of the Bridge to Echo River is being done for two reasons. The first is an attempt to restore the area to a condition approximating its original condition before modification by man. The second reason, and the more significant one, is to remove the bridge materials, which consist primarily of creosote treated timbers, from the water. The creosote is not a normal part of the cave eco-system and undoubtedly is causing some damage to the cave inhabitants. It is expected that after the project is finished the cave environment will be much better for its aquatic inhabitants.
Monday we entered via the Historic Entrance about 9AM. The majority of the people headed to the end of the bridge to see what it looked like. We stationed one group at Vanderbilt Hall where power was available. This area contained some posts that needed to be cut down to fit in the bags for removal. An electric chainsaw was used here to cut the posts. The Nelson family spent the majority of their time here cutting, bagging and stacking wood . The creosote fumes were quite strong from the freshly cut wood.
Two people were assigned as a repair crew to attempt to patch the holes in the existing bridge deck with pieces of plywood. As the bridge was another year older, there were several new areas that had been broken through since the last repair attempt. Hopefully the repairs will last until the repaired areas are removed as we work our way back from the river removing the bridge.
Another area was setup on a sandbank not too far from the bridge end where the bridge timbers could be sawed into manageable pieces. In this location we were using battery powered Sawsall's since the power to this area had been shut off when we began the removal project two years ago.
We had three people in wet suits in the water that were dismantling the bridge piece by piece. An additional 4 people were at the bridge end and/or on the bank beside the bridge assisting with the removal process.
An additional crew was removing lighting wire, handrail and PVC water pipe from the bridge and along the bank beside the bridge.
All remaining personnel were hauling the removed material from the cutting station to the rise at Lake Lethe or from the rise at Lake Lethe to the storage and cutting area at Vanderbilt hall.
At the end of the first day approximately 37 feet of bridge had been dismantled.
Day two started on Tuesday with a group photo at the Historic Entrance and then proceeded much as it had on Monday. Productivity was enhanced with everybody now knowing to do and how to do it. We removed an additional 24 feet of bridge by lunchtime. It was then that we discovered that we had run out of haul bags. This put a major crimp in the project design. While we were out of the cave for lunch, Norm and John discussed the options and a plan was formulated.
The original plan was to leave the bags in the cave for the weekend trips to haul out. However, since we had six hundred bags of material in the cave on one side or the other of the river and no more bags available it was decided that a haul out was necessary. Step one was to move all accumulated material from the rise at Lake Lethe to Vanderbilt hall. Next all of the bagged material was moved to the steps at the base of the fire tower.
A chaingang was formed up the steps from Mammoth Dome to the bottom of the firetower and the bags were moved up the steps. The area normally used to stack the bags became full and additional areas were used. This indicates that we now had more bags the bottom of the firetower than ever before. We had to clear the way for a tour that arrived when almost all of the bags had been moved up. After the tour cleared the firetower another chaingang was formed up the firetower and we started moving bags again. We quit for the day at 4:30 with about two thirds of the bags moved up to Little Bat Avenue.
Wednesday's project was to get the material out of the cave. We started again on the firetower moving the remaining bags up to Little Bat Avenue. We had brought in four wheelbarrows to assist in moving the bags from Little Bat Avenue to the Historic Entrance stairs. The bags were all at the stairs by lunchtime. It was decided not to move them up the stairs until about 2:30 to minimize interference with the Discovery tour. Additionally the truck to remove the bags would not be available until 3:30. After lunch the group returned to Vanderbilt hall to remove the PVC pipe as some other materials that still remained there.
At around 2:30 we formed another chaingang up the entrance stairs and moved all the bags to the surface. John Fry then left and returned with the truck about 3:30. The truck was loaded, driven to the Boneyard, emptied, returned, loaded, emptied, returned, loaded and emptied a third time before the day ended.
A free private tour of Diamond Caverns was scheduled for 5PM and many of the field camp participants attended this tour. This is a well-decorated cave and all that attended the trip were pleased to see such a nice commercial cave.
Thursday was planned as a recreational caving day. Joe Meiman and Chuck DeCroix guided twelve people on a Colossal - Bedquilt through trip. The majority of the remaining people accompanied John Fry on a trip in the Carmichael Entrance and out the Frozen Niagara entrance following the half-day tour route. Several people took advantage of Dave Fosters' offer for a free tour of Hidden River Cave and the ACCA museum.
Friday was to be a half-day working on the bridge followed by a clean up and tool removal after lunch. Well, it just didn't happen as planned. The river was up. It must have rained some where upstream from Mammoth because the Green River rose about eight feet overnight. We all went into the cave to see if we could get to the work area. The bottom steps to the first, stainless steel, bridge were under water. The river gauge at this location indicated 11.5 feet. The gauge at Green River Ferry had been 4.1 feet on Tuesday. The water was too high to safely return to the work area and all of the tools and equipment left there were probably underwater. They would be abandoned until the river went down.
So with almost a day left and 40+ cavers looking for work we headed to the Elevator Entrance to work on the other side if Echo River. Material had been moved from Cascade Hall to Ole' Bulls Concert Hall on the April weekend trip. We were to move these bags from Ole' Bull about halfway out of the cave to an area now called Pam's Paradise where Pam Saberton had broken her leg on the April trip. This was accomplished by early afternoon and work for this years' field camp came to an end.
Friday evening we enjoyed a cookout hosted by the NPS followed by the Monroe Brothers annual awards ceremony. Sack Rat of the Year was awarded to Roy "If that's your real name" VanHoozer, the Sack Pack award was given to the Nelson Family, a special Nancy Bag award was given to Nancy Friend and the Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Larry Reece. This concluded this years Field Camp. On Saturday trips had been arraigned for caves outside of the park for those who wanted more caving on the way home. Several planned to visit either Indian Cave or Roppel Cave.
The week after camp when the water had gone down some, Joe Meiman and John Fry went to the work area to retrieve the tools. The following is Johns' account of this event. "At first glance it was a pretty bad scene. Both saws and both lanterns had been submerged, most of the tools were soaked and in the early stages of rust, and the drill was nowhere to be found. Fortunately 5 of 6 saw batteries had escaped to higher ground. Looked downstream toward Sands of the Sahara and saw a white case floating on the foam... the first-aid kit. Donned the wetsuit to go retrieve it and found a various assortment of plywood, grass sacks, garbage bags, a full roll of duct tape (in addition to the thousand and one uses it also apparently floats!), and the closed drill case with a dry drill inside. Brought all the critical equipment out of the cave immediately, hosed 'em down, cleaned em up, dried everything out, and charged the various batteries. Much to my amazement the saws and lanterns are working fine... at least for the time being. The only loss seems to be one battery which now sloshes like a can of Chicken and Stars soup. In the end, water was probably only 12-18 inches above the level of Chop Shop #1. Joe said he checked and the "flood" was not attributable to anything the Corps did up at Green River Dam. Just a quick, heavy rainfall upstream."
So another years' Field Camp successfully concluded. What will 2001 bring? Well, several hundred feet of bridge still needs to be removed so you can be sure we'll be back if the river isn't up. The smell of creosote lingers in my mind as a reminder that what we have done and will do has and will improve the habitat of those who dwell in eternal darkness along Echo River Trail.
Hope to see you all at Mammoth Cave next year.